' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: A Fine Madness

Friday, September 30, 2011

Friday's Old Fashioned: A Fine Madness

(Well, even Kate Winslet made "The Life of David Gale.")

Do you have to suffer for your art? That question is a doozy and has been around for thousands of years, dating back, of course, to the ancient Egyptians when the writers of the first hieroglyphics spent their time bitterly complaining and drinking new-fangled fermented beverages while the hunter/gatherers seemed happy and content. Samson Shillitoe (Sean Connery), the protagonist of "A Fine Madness" (1966), directed by Irvin Kershner (who directed another movie you may recall), suffers for his art. He is your typical under-funded, un-recognized poet who drinks too much, has dabbled in jail and currently finds himself both with agents of the court hot on his trail for alimony payments he can't afford and suffering a serious case of writer's block in regards to finishing his latest masterwork. He is shacked up in Greenwich Village with a fiery (read: annoying) waitress named Rhoda (Joanne Woodward) but he tends to sleep with nearly every woman he encounters.


He has a job at Athena (!) Carpet Cleaners but winds up out of work when he sleeps with the secretary of the boss whose carpets he's supposed to be cleaning instead. Now he's out the necessary cash to pay those alimony payments and so he must go to extreme length to keep the creditors off his back. Rhoda, ever idiotically faithful, lines up a poetry-reading gig for him at a woman's meeting. In one of the film's better sight gags he swills champagne and when he finally ascends the stage he unleashes a torrent of foul-mouthed rage at the unsuspecting well-to-do ladies which results in a polite riot. But hey! He still collects his $200 fee!

This, however, doesn't go toward his debts. Rhoda hands it over instead to Dr. Oliver West (Patrick O'Neal), a noted psycho-analyist, whom she hopes can cure Samson of his anger, frustration and writer's block. In fact, the good Dr. West has a good idea, whereby he will move his newest patient to a nearby psychiatric hospital where 1.) The creditors would not be allowed enter, thus, providing Samson a peaceful opportunity to finish his poem and 2.) Dr. West and his cohorts could use him for conducting psychiatric experiments. Naturally, the poem doesn't get finished but Samson does find time to take Dr. Kropotkin (Colleen Dewhurst) to the boudoir and the wife (Jean Seberg) of Dr. West to the boudoir in the therapeutic bath. Meanwhile Dr. Menken (Clive Revill) has fashioned a new surgical procedure whereby he makes some sort of incision just below a patient's eyelid which results in the elminiation of a violent temper and is he ever eager to test drive it on the hospital's resident poet.

There are any numbers of way to describe Mr. Shillitoe. Boor comes to mind, or lout, or unremitting jackanapes, or, of course, that old standby antihero, because if ever there was a film character who was the antithesis of all that which could be considered heroic, it is Samson Shillitoe. This was back in the day when (the eventual) Sir Sean was best known as 007 and no doubt he wanted to moonlight in a role that let him get a little more rough around the edges and not necessarily have everyone cheer for him. Well, you certainly can't cheer for Samson. I don't so much mind movies where you don't have characters, as they say, to care about, but if that's your choice then make their situations funny and set them up for and provide them deserved come-uppance. "A Fine Madness" seems to condone Samson's behavior.

Let's return the spotlight to Cinema Romantico's current leading lady, Joanne Woodward, who stands by her man for reasons that remain unclear, unless we are to suppose she's merely a shrieking shrill, which she might be because it's sorta how Woodward plays it. She repeatedly hollers the words "damn" and "hell" only because even though it was the Swingin' Sixties you couldn't say "fuck" and "shit" on the silver screen. And essentially the first image we receive in the film is Samson taking a swing at her. It won't be the last time. Later, in the midst of an argument, he pushes her down the stairs. She breaks her leg. Later he invites Dr. West's wife who is pondering a divorce to come stay with he and Rhoda. "You can sleep on the couch," he says. "Oh no she won't," claims Rhoda. "Fine," he says to Rhoda, "you can sleep on the couch." I mean, seriously. There is a thin line between antihero and irredeemable dickhead who makes us want to stop the DVD. (Samson Shillitoe makes Larry David of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" look like a Nobel Peace Prize recipient.)


There were scads of potential. I think of Jeff Tweedy, frontman of the American band Wilco, a formerly moody man who went through bouts of agonizing migraines and addictions to painkillers and booze, and his wife, Sue Miller. I think of the lines Tweedy wrote that go:

She's a jar / with a heavy lid / my pop quiz kid
A sleepy kisser / a pretty war / my feelings hid
She begs me not to hit her.

I think of those lines and I think of Tweedy's personal demons and I think of how difficult it must be to be married to an artist. In Greg Kot's book about the band he interviewed Sue Miller about that line. She says: "Obviously Jeff has never hit me. And I know I have to give Jeff his creative license. And I have no way of knowing whether he could have written as cool and brilliant an album without having to go through everything he went through that year. I think that's one of our most common myths, that artists have to me miserable to be creative. I don't think that's true. I hope it's not true. I don't wish that kind of misery on anyone." A Fine Madness" was ripe for an exploration of such a hard-hitting sentiment, of whether the misery and makes the artist and whether it's worth it for the artist's spouse to put up with such misery. Instead the film wants to be laughed at.

What's oddly (horrifically) ironic is that at the very end of "A Fine Madness" Rhoda does beg Samson to hit her. And he does. And I think this was supposed to be funny. But I wasn't laughing.

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